I have only been in Gold Beach for six days. Twice now, I’ve been to Otter Point. The first time was the day after I arrived here, and then I went a second time yesterday. In between those two times, the coast of southern Oregon and northern California were subjected to battering gale-force winds and torrential downpours. Thanksgiving Day was wild. Mother Nature was showing her strength. The foothills and trees between the coast and this campground weren’t enough to hold back the winds as they unleashed their powers against the old wise ones standing strong outside the camper. Fortunately, the trees held their ground, only losing some limbs in the battle. The winds died down Thursday afternoon, but the rain stayed through most of the day, and the hazardous seas warning did not lift until late Friday afternoon.
When I checked into the campground, the very helpful owner here began filling me in on nearby sights to see. He is the one who told me about Otter Point. He also indicated that it is a good spot for whale watching, as there is a resident pod of whales in the area. Otter Point is up the 101 just a stretch to the north of Gold Beach. Oregon has a significant amount of land on the coast designated as a state park or state recreation area. And it stands to good reason. The coastal ecosystems are gorgeous. Everything from cliffs and sea stacks to sand dunes and tidal pools. There is a coastal trail system, which passes by Otter Point. If you head south from Otter Point on this trail system, it winds you through Old Growth spruce forest and down to the beach in a half a mile. I just discovered where the trail picks up heading north from the parking lot. Its entry point is not obvious, as the growth is quite dense, but I look forward to exploring up the trail on another day.
The first time I went out on Otter Point, it was windy. The kind of windy that makes you stand back from the cliff’s edge just a bit more than you would otherwise. The point is created from mostly sandstone. There are tenacious plants that cling to life, hugging the ground closely as protection from the wind, and feast on the moisture from the sea. The further out you get on the point, where the exposure is greatest, however, the plants give way to barren sand, breaking down on top of the cliff. Walking out on this end of the point in high winds leads to a beating. Sharp pricks of sand blast your skin and sting your eyes. But still you don’t want to leave. Still you stay, looking through sand-crusted, wind-induced tears trying to soak in the views.
I came here because I love Oregon. And I was ready for a change of scenery. I definitely got it. The November rainfall average for November is 9.2 inches. For December it is 11.6 inches. I think we got all of November’s rainfall in the first few days I was here. At least it felt like it. Yesterday, I went back to Otter Point, viewed the cove to the north, and then hiked on down to the coast on the Oregon Coast Trail and along the beach for a while. The tide was moving out, but high tide had hit only 45 minutes before I reached the beach. The contrasts between my first time at the point and this one were pretty stark. The winds were calm, but the seas were rowdy. Mists rose from the trees in the distance, the sun peaked from behind his hiding place. Walking the trail down to the beach brought me through a brief encounter with giant, old, spruce whose canopy blocked the light from above, darkening the forest, and transporting me to another time. I half expected to see a knight atop a horse galloping through the trees. Or maybe Big Foot lumbering.
The walk along the beach revealed evidence of the storm the previous two days. The once-living littered the sand. It was obvious most of what lie there now was newly deposited. Plants and sea creatures alike. It was a massacre. I saw a huge crab next to piece of driftwood. It looked like it was looking at me. I snapped some photos, but then thought I’d rescue it. Because that’s what I do. Except that this one was beyond rescuing. There was actually nobody home, as I discovered when I poked at the shell to see if it would move and it immediately flipped upside down because it was only the top shell with nothing inside. I saw bits of coral. And monstrous gelatinous blobs of jelly that I first mistook for a shiny rock or a miniature UFO. Might have been able to save those. Wasn’t about to try. Besides the numerous half clam shells and oyster shells, mostly what I saw littering the beach was the corpses of humongous tubular plants, roots still attached, and sometimes jumbled up together in large masses. These were everywhere. What I did not see, surprisingly, was any human litter washed ashore. No nets, no plastic, no random shoe or tin can or fishing line or Styrofoam.
When I got back to nearer the place where the trail meets the beach, I noticed how much less debris was on the beach. I took off my shoes and socks and let my toes and feet sink in the sand and skim across the waves as they chased up the beach to where I walked. I reached the cliff face at the base of Otter Point and stood on some low rocks and watched the white caps rise and rumble, stirring up the surface of the ocean, and filling in the space around the rock I was standing on. I felt in motion with the sea, standing above it, but at the same time moving within the depths, rolling with the water, and crashing upon the rocks. It’s a powerful feeling letting yourself go, moving with the forces of nature. Sure, my feet were firmly on the ground. But my mind was free to fly.
I am a lucky soul. I have chosen a life that suits me and, no matter what would happen next, I’ve had the most amazing four months so far. I am right where I should be, doing the thing that makes me feel most alive. A vagabond in her element, living in the elements with everything she needs. My drive here from Medford, through the smoke of the California fires, gave me pause to think about just how fortunate I am. I chose to get rid of almost all of my belongings. I chose to ditch brick and mortar. I chose to leave my job. I chose to leave behind the security of the known. I am a lucky soul.
I wanted to get to Gold Beach in time to settle in a bit before Thanksgiving. Once it was decided that this is where we would come for the next month or two, I was chomping at the bit to get here. Suddenly, I was looking forward to Thanksgiving. I love this time of year. Not for the frenzied consumerism that grips our country (and world), but for the less tangible, and far more important, reasons. I am not big on the shopping madness that happens starting in October (it seems to get earlier every year!). I find it ironic that we celebrate a holiday in which we honor the aid of the Native Americans who helped us survive in this new world before we obliterated them. But I do find value in what this holiday has come to symbolize now, for the idea that we all need to pause and give thanks for what we do have in our lives, for the things we take for granted, for the big things and the small things. But I am a firm believer that we should be doing this every day. Not just on the fourth Thursday in November. I do love this time of year, though. I love it for the reflectiveness brought on by shorter days, longer nights, and colder weather. I love this time of year because of the time spent slowing down, the time spent with family and friends, and the time spent in a natural world that is also slowing down, nestling in, and insulating itself from the wildness Mother Nature can bring in the northern hemisphere this time of year, the time spent turning inwards.
I do enjoy some of the traditions of the holidays. Comfort foods and red wine will be on order for my day. I now eat a vegan diet, but I still eat foods that remind me of my family’s traditional fare. I cannot be with my family this year, but when I bite into my dressing, I will be drawn into their presence, pulled into memories and nostalgia of family gatherings where first my grandparents, then my mom, and then each of us kids concocted the family’s dressing in the kitchen. No measurements provided for this family recipe. Just ingredients and years of tasting passed on from one generation to the next. The creator would create, and the rest of us would taste test, and then discuss. More sage? More poultry seasoning? Too thick? Do we need more turkey juice? There was no need to ask for volunteers, as we all hovered close to be sure we were included in this time-honored tradition. I don’t know when it was exactly, but I recall making the passage from taster to creator. It became my time to help out in the kitchen. And then my brothers took their turns at the helm as well. In this way, our family’s recipe lives on. It is a living thing. It only breathes because we give it life through our time and the love of what it means to our family. I will not be in the presence of my family this year. I will miss that dearly. But as I work in my tiny little kitchen to create a dressing using a recipe that results in a delight reminiscent of my family’s dressing, I will be drawn into the warm, glowing, energy of this tradition, into the love symbolized in this one dish.
A few years ago, another tradition began. This time of year, I love watching holiday movies. I have my favorites, and on Thanksgiving Day, that favorite for the past several years has become Dan in Real Life. I introduced this endearing, funny, lovely little film to my family, and we’ve watched it a few times now as a family on Thanksgiving. We will watch it here, after dinner, on a laptop (we got rid of the TV in our RV). And I will hope that my family also watch it, that this is another thing we will share, even with almost 1,900 miles separating me from the family gathering in Champaign (though there are some other family members missing from that gathering).
While I will miss my family on this Thanksgiving, I am so grateful to be spending this holiday in the wet, emerald, coastal forests of southern Oregon. And while I do miss my family, I cannot honestly say I would rather be anywhere else than where I am right now. I spent the day before Thanksgiving listening to the rain falling outside, with cats curled up next to me, as Gail made her mom’s pumpkin pie (veganized), and I wrote blog entries and planned for the cooking for tomorrow. And I could not think of a better leadup to this holiday. I am thinking about how much I have to be grateful for. I am thankful for the life I lead. I am thankful to have everything I need right now. I am thankful to have had the chance to see so much beauty in so short a time. To have experienced the kindness of fellow travelers. To have entered the smoky places and come out on the other side. To have a home that takes me safely from one place to the next. To have known the love of furry family throughout the years and now. To have the gifts of health, mobility, and a free spirit. I am thankful for the many incredibly thoughtful, engaging, and lovely friends I’ve had the honor to know over the years. I am thankful to be traveling with my best friend. I am forever thankful for my family, for all the love, crazy, fun, tradition, laughter, and togetherness of the bonds that will always tie us together.
And I am grateful, so grateful, to those of you who are taking the time to read my words, today and any other day you do. It means so much that you stop by, once, or time and again.
I hope all of you have the most beautiful day, even if you do not celebrate the American Thanksgiving.
Our original plan for the winter was to head to the coast of Oregon, but somewhere along the way, we had decided to go south to a spot near, sort of, Kingman, AZ. It is cheap to stay there. That was our main reason for choosing it. We also thought we’d be less distracted and more able to focus on some projects we were each wanting to do because, while the desert areas of New Mexico and Utah are magical places full of distractions for a hiker and with feasts for the eyes of a daydreamer, the deserts around the SW region of Arizona were not as much to the tastes of either one of us. Sure there would be some beautiful places nearby. We had read about them. But not near enough to make it easy to get to on a daily basis. But, shortly after we arrived in Zion, Gail had been looking at a map. On that map, the close(ish) proximity of the Oregon border became apparent. That started some musings in our minds, and some calculations as to the amount of time it would take to get to the coast of Oregon. Research on potential places to stay. Discussions of pros and cons of desert versus coastal Oregon in the winter. And a relatively quick conclusion that we were ready for a change of scenery and the coast of Oregon was back on the table for our winter sojourn. A phone call confirmed we would have a beautiful, non-parking lot, place to stay in Gold Beach, which then sealed the deal. We were going to Gold Beach, on the southern coast, west of the Coastal Range, north of the Redwoods, and central to sea stacks and the Wild and Scenic Rogue River.
But first, we were making our way to Vegas to see my brother and sister-in-law. I had been hoping to see them, hoping that the timing would work out that we could intersect. Shay and Heather live in Champaign. They were coming to Vegas to celebrate Heather’s grandmother’s birthday. We wouldn’t have much time with them, but that didn’t matter. If we could coordinate it, it would be worth it. We also had to pass through Vegas on our way to Oregon, as that was the best route to go. Our first stop south from Zion was Valley of Fire State Park. Oh. My. No reservations for the campground there. They don’t take them. And again we got lucky. We arrived in time to get the very last RV spot, with water and electric. It was also, in my estimation, the best spot in the entire campground. Snuggled up kind of close to a stack of fire red rocks that screamed for clambering, overlooking a wide, scrubby plane that led to desert mountains in the distance, and a large spot with neighbors not too close. It was perfect. The only challenge in this park is absolutely no connectivity. Which is only a challenge if you need it. Otherwise, it’s great to get away from the need to connect, even when you don’t needto connect. I made the most of my time there, relaxing a lot and even spent an entire day reading. With the scenery right out our door, there was no need to rush around trying to see things. It was good to unwind from the daily on-the-go time at Zion. I did some scrambling up those rocks beside our site. Explored the backside of the outcropping, saw the Beehives, and meditated on a flat piece of rock overlooking the campground. Gail and I hiked the biggies in the park, with our favorite by far being the Fire Wave. We managed to hike this early in the morning, which meant we shared the spot with only one lone woman, and gave it over to a group of four just as we were leaving to make our way back to the car. The Fire Wave felt like a nice substitute to hiking the well-known Wave in Coyote Butte in northern AZ. While that would be a dream hike, getting a permit is a matter of extremely good timing and a whole lotta luck. All year long. There is no off-season for that hike. And you need a 4WD vehicle to access the trail head. That would not be in the cards for us this year.
After spending the Veterans Day weekend in Valley of Fire, we headed down to Vegas, where we stayed for three nights in a parking lot under the flight path of military planes coming out of Nellis AFB heading out to and returning from Area 51 and surrounding military test areas. It was loud. And close. But we had great connectivity and were able to get some much-needed shopping done to prepare for the trip to Oregon. And then we got to spend time with Shay and Heather. It’s always a bit of a surreal feeling to meet up with familiar people in unfamiliar (or at least unfamiliar in terms of your relationship to those people) places. We haven’t been on the road long, but in seeing my brother and sister-in-law for the first time after saying good-bye in Champaign four months ago, it felt like ages. We had a great, if too short, time catching up over a delicious meal and even better margaritas. Those two were troopers, given that they had been up since the wee morning hours in order to catch their flight to Vegas. I’m not sure how they were standing, or sitting, still by the time we met up, but I’m so glad they were able manage it. Once we were finished with our shopping and our visit, we were more than ready to head out. So were the cats. Not the most comfortable place, nor the most scenic, for the fur family!
We made a push for Medford. Normally, we stay two nights in any given place so that the cats and I have time to recover before riding and driving in the rig again. We were too much in a hurry to do that this time and made the trip from Vegas to Medford in three driving days. Fortunately, the roads were (mostly) good. We stayed two nights outside of Medford so that we could hit the Co-op there and Trader Joe’s to get prepped for Thanksgiving in our new temporary home. On our way there, we had largely avoided the smoke pollution from the fires raging in California, but that changed once we hit Medford. It wasn’t terrible, but the stagnant air alert was a reminder that the fires were close by. It was great to be in Oregon, even if we were not yet at our first landing spot. It felt close. Medford is a nice little town, but it was hard to settle into the idea of being there because Gold Beach was in our sights, and I was anxious to get there and get settled in for a bit.
The drive to Gold Beach was beautiful. When you could see it. The first portion followed the Rogue River, and then veered from there to head south into Cali and then to the coast. Once we hit Grants Pass, visibility was limited. The fire danger there was low, but it looked like the fire was upon us with all the smoke in the air. It was dense. It was creepy. And it was a reminder of what the folks living through the nightmare must feel like as the fires consume sage brush, trees, homes, and life. It was a sobering drive, even while the beauty that was revealing itself between the whispers and blankets of smoke made me also a bit giddy. It’s hard to describe what was like to simultaneously hold the conflicting feelings of sadness and eagerness, but as I broke free from the smoke and into the Redwoods and then turned north onto the 101, excitement rose to the surface, edged with a background of sadness for what is happening in California. The result was that I was even more grateful for the fortune I have in being here, of living this life I live right now. Our home for the next month or two. Rain, rainforests, wild rivers, wilder winds, rugged sea shores, sea stacks, and tenacious foliage speak to me, whisper to my heart that this is where I should be right now. And Oregon’s state motto?
“She flies with her own wings.”
After leaving Capitol Reef, we headed towards Zion. Last year, on my drive out west, I had planned to do one hike in Zion, but, in the end, I didn’t have the time. I reached Zion last year via Highway 9. That drive is a destination in and of itself. It is scenic. It can be one to fray the nerves in a couple of locations if you have an issue with heights with its steep drop-offs on both sides of the road and little shoulder and no guardrails. It winds through Escalante during this stretch, so the tendency to want to gape at the scenery does battle with the reality that veering a little too far off course could turn out badly. It is fortunate that there are plenty of turnouts. It is a slow-going drive, so by the time I got to Zion, it was getting too late in the day to stop. And then it was summer, which meant throngs of tourists winding their way through the park. Bumper-to-bumper traffic and no opportunity to even pull off for pics because all of the turnouts were occupied. It was frustrating. So, I was happy to be returning this fall. I was glad for the chance to seeZion.
We did not take Highway 9 to get to get there this year. We had driven a portion of that road, including the spectacular section through Escalante, on a separate day and hiked a trail along the length of a canyon to a beautiful waterfall: Lower Calf Creek Falls. I did not want to drive Knight on Highway 9. Maybe I’m a bit of a wimp, but the steep sections are very steep for his old bones and he is big enough that the outside curves with steep drop-offs would have been a bit uncomfortable. We went a different route and stayed for a few nights along the way in a campground near Kanab that was situated on a Paiute Indian Reservation against a backdrop of red rock perched at the edge of a high plain. The stay there was restful. Peaceful. Even the cats were chill and at ease. We made friends with our neighbors at the end of our stay there. It turns out that they are also full-timing it on the road with their baby and their dog. A casual greeting one afternoon turned into an hours long conversation sitting between our two campers. The conversation was wide-ranging and easy, in spite of some differences in perspective on some big topics.
We said goodbye to our neighbors and made our way to Zion. We were staying in the National Park this time. I was fortunate to be able to string together a total of three camp spots to stay for five nights. It felt special to be staying inside the park. The campground was booked until the end of November, so scoring a spot was sheer luck. And for five nights at that. We stayed in the Watchman’s campground, with a view of the Watchman right out our door and a trail of the same name leaving from the nearby Visitor’s Center. I hiked that one the first day. It was a weekend and I wanted to avoid the crowds as much as possible for the two hikes I was really looking forward to: Observation Point and The Narrows. Zion is beautiful this time of year, without the bumper-to-bumper traffic. And we seem to be chasing fall these past two months. I continue to be amazed at the color I am seeing and realizing how wrong my preconceived notions have been about fall colors in the west, generally, and in the desert, specifically. That’s what happens, I guess, from only seeing this part of the country in summer or winter, and from making a judgement based on what I imagined this region to be without knowing it beyond two seasons. What a happy surprise at how wrong I’ve been!
I had been reading reviews and planning for two good hikes in Zion, with a couple of the smaller ones leading up to those two hikes. I knew I wanted to do the Narrows, if possible. But I toyed with the decision between Angel’s Landing and Observation Point. Angel’s Landing spoke to the side of me that likes to push my boundaries a bit. The side of me who likes the idea of doing something a little scary. I am by no means an adrenaline junkie. Not at all. But I loved the idea of a hike that would challenge my comfort with heights. I don’t mind heights too much. I like high places when I feel safe, when I have something to ground me. I am not one to want to stand on a narrow precipice with only my balance to keep me on top. But I love the view from up high. I love seeing into the distance, into infinity, and all that is between where I stand and there. All I need to feel grounded is something solid to put a hand on, to hold on to. If there were chains or ropes all the way up, I’d be good. Because there are places where the path drops off on both sides. One side might be doable. Two sides is very questionable, unless there is a rope or chain. Angel’s Landing has this for at least part of the journey. I was intrigued. I wondered if I could do it without chickening out along the way. A big strike against Angel’s Landing, however, is the sheer number of people who make that climb. It can be a traffic jam in precarious positions. That did not sound like my idea of fun. It is one thing if I have to worry about my own self freaking out, and quite another if I then also have to worry about others as well.
Observation Point, on the other hand, is not supposed to be as busy and you do not get two-sided drop-offs. Just one side, with a path that is generally not too narrow. I’m good with that. Observation Point is also a longer hike by a few miles and has a view from higher up than Angel’s Landing. You look down on Angel’s Landing from Observation Point, and then all the way down canyon. Those two facts together sold me on Observation Point. I quickly discovered upon heading out that my idea of no crowds did not meet with the reality of what I found on the trail. It was a beautiful fall day in November. It was a weekday, but I still had plentyof company. I had to exchange my idea of solitude for one of camaraderie. Let go of the notion that I’d see few people and have plenty of quiet and the perch at the end nearly to myself. If I hadn’t let go of those ideas, I’d have experienced disappointment at every turn. Sometimes it’s necessary to change your expectations and see an opportunity in a new light.
It so happens that the day I chose to head up to Observation Point was the same day that three groups of, I’d guess, fifth graders were heading up to Observation Point. Definitely not quiet. Definitely not solitude. But I had to think how great it was that these kids were being exposed to a hike like this, that they had this opportunity. This was more than just a walk in the park. I also had to think, “what brave souls the leaders were to head up with a group of kids (I think about ten in each group) on a hike such as Observation Point. Glad someone was doing it. Glad it wasn’t me. I shared the Point with dozens of adults and all of the kids. And loads of rock squirrels who were doing their damnedest to be as cute and brave as possible to entice us humans into feeding them. Besides the view from up top, one of the most entertaining things about the hour I spent up there was listening to the kids talk about what they were seeing. And then I stayed long enough to see all the kids and several other leave, thereby giving me much more quiet and solitude for the journey down. The trek up to Observation Point was 4 miles up, with over 2000 feet in elevation gain, and then the 4 miles back down. A nice little workout for the lungs and muscles. My legs noticed that they’d worked, in a good way. I love that feeling of tired muscles, and I love being sore, even. You know you did something.
After I hiked down, I went to rent my gear for the Narrows. The river was flowing and cold, so I had to have more than just boots and hiking pants. I opted for the canyoning shoes, pants, neoprene socks, and the wooden hiking stick that all came in one package. I could not fathom needing bibs or a waterproof backpack. I’d heard at the beginning of the week that the water was generally no more than mid-calf to knee high. Of course, the guy I talked to had taken his 6-year-old daughter on the hike and did not go the full length of the 5-mile day hike. I probably should have gone for at least the waterproof pack. On several occasions, I found myself holding my breath, hoping I’d not be in above my waist, while raising my backpack as high up on my back as I could. I managed to not get it wet, but one little slip, one little misstep, would have quickly changed that.
I was on the bus heading down the canyon at 8:00 in the morning. A great time to start out. There were few of us heading out at that time, so it was the quiet and almost solitude I had been seeking the previous day. I didn’t think the Narrows would be much of a challenge. It is pretty much flat, after all. I did not count on how rocky it would be nor how high the water would really be. Both ensured that my legs turned to rubber by the end of the day, especially as I did this hike right on the heels of Observation Point, and my knees twinged from the effort of dragging legs through water. But oh, the effort was rewarding. The water was cold. I nearly bit it on more than one occasion, but somehow managed to stay upright. I had the good fortune of being just behind a guy who was from Salt Lake City but spoke with a very southern accent. He was kind enough to wait for me to catch up in order to inform me of spots he discovered were tricky. He took the plunge more than once, and I benefitted from his misfortune. He did, however, think to rent a dry bag, so all his supplies were safe. We hiked in close proximity all the way to the end of the day hike, at Hidden Falls. There is an option to hike from the top of the Narrows down, which is a 16 miler, for which you have to have a shuttle to take you to the trailhead, and you have to get a permit so you can camp halfway down. The day hike up to Hidden Falls is supposed to be 5 miles. With my watch, however, I calculated it to be 6.25 (my watch connects to my phone GPS so is fairly accurate with distance). With all the navigating back and forth across the canyon to pick my way through the challenging course, it is no surprise the hike was quite a bit longer than 5 miles in one direction.
At 5.5 miles, I was ready to give up and turn around. A hard thing for me to do. I am usually not one to give up on reaching a destination or goal (another thing that can be chalked up to stubbornness). But at 5.5 miles, it was getting later in the day, and I wanted to be sure I got back before dark, as I did not bring a headlamp. I thought I’d go just a bit further. If I didn’t see the falls by 5.75 miles, I’d turn back. But just as I reached that point, I came across a couple heading down the canyon. They informed me that the falls were “not much further…just around two or three more bends” and that they were well worth that short a distance after I’d come so far already. Of course I had to continue. And of course they were right. I had a nice rock to perch on, pretty little falls, and some food to put into my too empty stomach. I’d snacked along the way, but I am one of those who is always hungry when I hike, and it was way past lunch time. The young guy I’d been following along with on the hike was already there when I arrived, and he left shortly after I got there to make his way back. I sat alone for a few minutes enjoying the feeling in my rubbery legs, the sound of the water as it flowed over ferns and rocks from a spring within the rock, and the bubbling rush of the river as it whisked by me sitting on my rock. Satisfied with journey and glad that I did not give in to the desire to turn around before I’d reached my goal, I packed up my pack again, willed my feet and legs to hold me upright, and moving in a forward motion, making my way back the same way I came.
It is a good feeling to know you reached your destination. To feel the effort in your every fiber, the satisfaction deep to the core of you. To know as you pass others that they will be rewarded in the same way when they get there too. But also to be glad that you are on the downside of those efforts, making your way back to a comfortable couch, more food, and a nice, cold beverage…and a really good night’s sleep. When I’d left, there were few of us entering the canyon. When I approached the mile or two nearer the start, it began to get more crowded. By the time I got to the end, I felt like a person who had gone on a long journey to a far-off place, returning to find a different landscape from the one she left, feeling a spectacle for the onlookers to ogle at. A bit of an outsider with those who had no idea what the journey meant and how it alters a person inside. It can feel that way out here, sometimes, too, though there are also plenty who get it. Plenty who share in the journey, even when observing from afar. And a growing number of others who are joining in this journey, for sometimes widely different reasons. I read recently that there are now over 1 million people living on the road.
Let that sink in for a minute. 1 million people, and that number is growing. I see all the time people who are in the planning stages for jumping off into this kind of life. Simplifying. Downsizing dramatically. And preparing to be rubber trampers. I find it interesting that so many people are opting for this life on the road. I find it fascinating that people are turning to a simple life of travel. Trading in consumerist consumption for a different kind of consumption. One of new experiences and natural spaces. One of closer relationships, with themselves, others, and the natural world. It is a re-tooling of the American Dream, it seems. It harkens back to our nomadic natures, to a time when traveling over the land was just the way humans lived and survived. There are no pre-requisites for who you have to be to live this life, just that you want it enough to make it work. There are people out here with jobs, people out here who make their own jobs on the road, people who are raising their kids and taking their pets (cats, too!). People who plan ahead for a long time to be able to do this, and those who wing it once they are out here. Retirees, middle-agers, and Millennials. It is a curious thing to watch. A curious tide to be a part of. It is one piece of a puzzle of many pieces that have the potential to fit together to create a new framework for our troubled society.
There is this hill you descend as you approach Capitol Reef from Torrey, UT. At the top of that hill, the expanse of Capitol Reef is laid before you in layers of rust and white. When the sun is low in the sky, the reds glow with the strength of the sun itself. There is no place to stop on the road as you head down that hill, so you are forced to enjoy the moment as you roll on down into the boundaries of the park itself, with no pause for a photo op. So you will all just have to trust me on the magnitude of this sight, unless you go there to see for yourself, which I would highly recommend to anyone. But go in fall. This part of the desert in fall will astonish the unsuspecting visitor with its array of color. Turns out that autumn colors are not just for the eastern third of the country. And this makes me very happy, as fall, back in my hometown, was my favorite time of year. Now, I can miss those color changes a little less.
Autumn is a magical time of year for this part of the country. The heat is blissfully gone, the crowds are thinned. You can hike for long stretches on popular trails and hardly see a soul. Capitol Reef has turned into my favorite desert park out of the three I’ve visited thus far. It is less popular than Arches or Zion. I hope it stays that way. Even when I came through here in the summer of 2017, on my way to my brother and now sister-in-law’s wedding, Capitol Reef did not feel like it was swarming in park visitors. I went on one of the most popular hikes in the park during that visit (the Chimney Rock Trail, for those of you who are curious) and only saw a total of four people on that hike: two as I was starting out and two as I was finishing. As you all know by now, if you’ve been following this blog, I enjoy solitude when I hike. I enjoy being present in the moment, listening and observing the space I am in. I like letting my brain rest from the whirring patterns of thought of everyday life. It is a Zen space for me, being alone in nature. A place where I don’t have to perform; I just have to be. I might confront uncomfortable physical conditions, such as when I struggle for each breath as I push myself up a steep climb, or face fears induced by the very solitude I endeavor to find. None of this actually reduces the peace I feel. Indeed, in some strange way, I think it contributes to it. Maybe it’s because there is something about the effort and pushing your body and facing fears in nature that brings a person into herself, makes a girl (or guy) aware of who she really is, stripped of protections and social conditioning, realizing a strength and courage that often hides in the day-to-day world.
I came to this journey with the understanding that I needed to shift spaces. I needed to see the world through a different lens, to see the goodness in our world again. This did not mean putting on rose-colored glasses. It meant seeing the common threads that bond us all with each other and with the natural world. It meant seeing that these common threads exist in spite of the exaggerated divisions of society and the separation from nature created by artificial environments and technology. I knew that I wanted to change my own perspective on how I had come to view the world. What I didn’t realize as much was that I would equally, if not to a greater degree, begin to change my perspective of me. I am starting to understand that this change of perspective has to happen before I can honestly change my perspective on the rest of the world. Change starts at home, right?
I am an introvert. A shy person at heart. But I learned to talk over the years. I learned to fill the quiet moments between me and another with chatter to disguise my discomfort. I talked a lot out of nervousness. And I came to state my opinions at times in obstinate and unmoving terms. Stubbornness can be one of my not-so-fine qualities. This came from years of being too shy to speak up. Too fearful of being wrong. To afraid of not being heard. So, I went the other direction, demanding to be heard and not listening enough, thinking that, as a shy person, I was being courageous and strong.
Now I am realizing that there is courage in listening more than we talk, in observing more than we act, in silence over noise. There is strength in those actions. Yes, there is a time to speak out, absolutely. A time to make sure we are heard. A time to hold strong in our convictions. But how do we know who we are and how do we understand one another and the world around us when we cannot hear other voices over the din of our own, when we cannot hear the sounds of birds and trees rustling, of our own breath and heartbeat, of that of our companions when we fill the air with noise, when we can see no further than our screens and our tunnel vision?
In Capitol Reef, this time around, I hiked the Grand Wash and the Cassidy Arch Trail. One takes you through a winding, dry river bed, with strong and rusty walls towering impressively and imposingly above your head. The patterns in the rock and the diversity of formations are captivating. I was entranced in the views surrounding me and did not care to see what lie beyond. This was enough. I was happy with what I saw and heard here. After seeing a group of women of a certain age who spoke German and were, I found, from Munich and Grunwald and one of whose parents lived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen until the day they died, but who were now living in, of all places, Oklahoma, I saw no one until I neared the end of the Grand Wash Trail and began to head up the Cassidy Arch Trail. I was content with my views from deep inside the canyon, thinking that this was the highlight of the hike. Until I went up the other, the Cassidy Arch Trail, which leads you up challenging, steep, and not always well-marked paths to reach bald rock, a landscape laid bare, with grand views of a world spread out from that high point, diverse, yet joined together in an unbreaking sweep of the eye in a 360 view. Independent. Complex. Linked. Interdependent. The route to get there was difficult at times, but the rewards were great.
I met people on the Cassidy Arch Trail. People on their own journeys on this trail, on this trip, on this merry-go-round called life. We shared silence, and we communed in good-natured comments over the difficulty of the journey. We exchanged mutual wonderment over the views from above, and, on a couple of occasions, we got lost together and then found our way back to the path together. I am finding out here that I grow more comfortable again with silences and listening, not just in nature, but in the company of others. And in doing so, I also don’t find the need to chatter to fill the void. Not as much, anyway. It still happens, sometimes. But not always. And that’s an okay place to start.
If anyone were to ask me if I liked deserts, I’d reply with a resounding, “NO!” I have never liked the desert. I love trees and water. I love color and contrasts. I love cute, furry animals…even the ones who can bite your head off. Except I have caveats: I don’t like humidity. Or heat. Deserts, on the other hand, are all brown and tan. Monotonous. They lack “real” trees and water. And they are filled with slithery, creepy, stinging and biting reptiles, insects, and arachnids. No. Not for me. But I’d have caveats here, too. No humidity in the desert is a good thing. And lizards are adorable. This is what we do in life, as humans. We categorize everything, and paint with broad strokes the characteristics of members of each category, and then lump them into good or bad, likes or dislikes. When we run into a member of that category that doesn’t quite fit, we make exceptions or add caveats, while still maintaining that our neat little categories work for us, for maintaining our order and our perspectives on the world. We put people into categories based on religion, politics, ethnicity, skin color, economic status. Animals fall into cute and cuddly, dangerous and deadly, mammal, reptile, insect…or dinner. We put emotions and actions in simplified terms, defying the complexities at the roots of many of our actions and in the simultaneous and sometimes conflicting emotions we feel at any given time.
But now I’m out traveling in the desert. I first made southern Utah an exception to my desert perspective last year when I traveled these parts and hiked in Arches and Capitol Reef on my way to my brother and now sister-in-law’s wedding in California. Now, however, my exceptions grow. I am finding it harder to paint the desert only in browns and tans. I am not just passing through, glancing at beauty that surprises me and runs counter to my idea of what makes a desert. I move more slowly. I spend more time. I am getting to know more deeply the desert, from northern New Mexico to here, in southwestern Utah. I am seeing beyond the surface. I am having to shift perspectives, to broaden my conceptualization of desert and desert life. The scene of red, white, pink, and rust rock against a blue sky is full of color and contrast. A river running through a canyon supports abundant trees, and trees grow in transition zones or cling to life on rocky heights, defying and adapted to a lack of rainfall. I have a new-found appreciation for tarantulas now that I see them in their environment and I know more about them and their struggles for survival. I don’t want to surprise or piss off a rattle snake by stepping on its turf, but I like knowing they are here. I no longer feel a stranger to this land because I know and understand it better. The desert and I are becoming friends, and I feel a connection I never thought I would feel. Though, I can’t say I’ve made peace with scorpions yet; but, then, I’ve not yet had an opportunity to get to know them either.
I am finding the same out here with the people I meet. We are all in this together out here. I walk to the restroom past rigs older than mine; rigs new and ginormous and glamorously outfitted; tiny little trailers that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how two people can possibly sleep inside (though I still think they are awesome little things); vans; and tents. All sharing this space, sitting side-by-side, with few delineations between neighborhoods or jobs or socioeconomic standards to determine who sits next to you. I’ve been in places where I am sure my neighbor has been forced into this situation because of hardships or where people have turned their rigs into more permanents structures because they’ve set down roots (whether out of need or desire is really irrelevant). I am sitting now in a National Park where some have no trouble affording the sites here, while others, I’m sure, save up all their pennies just for the opportunity to see this wonderous landscape.
To be sure, not everyone out here escapes their judgmental tendencies even when escaping “real” life to come out into the “surreal” life of nature. It is also certain that there are those places where the artificial boundaries erected in society exist just as strongly. There are those RV parks I would never be allowed into, even if I wanted to, because my rig isn’t bright, shiny, and new enough. But most of my experiences since arriving to the west have shown me kindness reigns when people shed their blinders. When they find themselves in a place where a majority have an awe and wonder of the space they are in. When there is the common ground of appreciation for this life and for travel. When you are in a space or engaged in an activity that erases stress and worry and anxiety, even if only for a time, and puts a smile on your face and a lightness in your step, you greet your neighbors with kindness without even thinking about it. You don’t ask or wonder their politics or religion or socioeconomic status. You just smile, say hello, and receive the same in return. And maybe you strike up a conversation or exchange small talk. And sometimes you find yourself sitting next door to someone whom, after much conversation, you realize has differences that would have divided you in the “real” world, but, out here, you can still get to know them and enjoy their company and even have discussions around those topics that would have never been discussed under normal circumstances. And you discover you enjoy this person’s company, and a friendship is formed that will continue beyond the goodbyes of moving on.
I am not blind to the issues that exist in this world right now. They are plentiful. I know and understand they are out there, and I realize that these problems did not go away just because I moved into a new space. But it seems to me these very real issues stem from artificial sources we humans have created in our society. Can we fix the problems by continuing on paths that offer up divisiveness and anger, anxiety and fear, a me before we mentality? Or would we be better served to loosen up the strict and confining bounds of our categories, to allow for the possibility of more exceptions to the characteristics we assign members of any given category, to get to know those whose differences normally keep us separated and find the common threads that tie us all together, and to let kindness reign? I don’t know what the right path is, but the path we are currently on doesn’t seem like it leads us to any positive outcomes. I don’t believe there is only one right way, just that the way we’ve chosen creates a much harsher and cruel reality. It seems to me a smile and kindness for your neighbor or the stranger in the shops or the person you see as you leave the voting booth today does more to start healing what ails us than a scowl and angry words. And a walk in nature sooths the soul and quiets the mind more than our screens do. What I do know is that we really areall in this together. And time spent in the desert teaches us that there are more exceptions than our confining category of “desert” can allow for when we slow down and take the time to get to know and understand it.
The last day of our friend’s visit brought us yet another taste of adventure with finishing notes of peace and gratitude. Our friend had an unasked-for upgrade on her rental car for her visit. It was a beast of a vehicle, with high clearance and 4WD. How could we NOT take advantage of the opportunity such a contraption would allow?
We had read about middle-of-nowhere Ute Mountain, sitting alone at the northern edge of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, brushing up against the border of Colorado. Ute Mountain is an extinct volcano, its cone top long rounded out and smoothed over by time and the elements. It has historically been an important location for Native Americans. It has long been a place noted for the peace it engenders within, between, and among those who stand within her shadows or upon her slopes. She sits alone, off unpaved roads and at the end of misguided directions from map apps. It takes effort to get there. And a vehicle better designed for rough roads than a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid doesn’t hurt, either.
Upon leaving the maintained and paved portion of the National Monument, we punched in our desired location, Ute Mountain, on the map, and I pointed the nose of the beast down the first dirt and gravel and rocky road, with the mountain sitting in the distance beckoning us onwards, looking tantalizingly within reach. We bumped along stretches of grasslands and fence rows, past occasional adobe or faded and worn wood structured houses. And landed, after a time, at a gate, with a sign warning against trespass and indicating Chevron’s rights of ownership. Yet, clearly, the map app indicated we go just this way. Nothing to do but turn around and opt for an alternate route offered in the faded blue lines on the map directions.
More bouncing, more jarring, more testing of bladder strength and a couple more turns brought us past this:
A piece of art in the desert that apparently also served as somebody’s home, and with a wide view of Ute Mountain in the distance. Who lived there? Better yet, who designed and painted such a brilliant splash of color out in the middle of almost nowhere?
The road (of sorts) led us by other creative, architectural marvels, though I’m not sure these others would qualify as art. Like the house someone made from a short bus built out to create extra rooms. A hybrid of sorts between a school bus and a wooden home. Quirky and fascinating. Creative and amusing in its clever use of materials. Maybe some would call it art. A short distance beyond the bus house, it looked as if we were nearly to the final turn that would take us to the road leading to the north side of Ute Mountain. But, in reality, it led us to another dead end, at a house this time. With bones hanging from a fence post at the end of the driveway. No other warning needed. Time to turn around again and seek out that third alternative route.
The third route took us all the way back out to the highway, down a stretch, and at last onto the unpaved road that appeared to take us to the turnoff we needed to reach our destination. But, in this case, the third time was not a charm. We would hit one more wrongly indicated turn that led into the gates of someone’s ranch. Perplexed, we drove on, thinking maybe it wasn’t for us to reach the peaceful grounds of Ute Mountain. We were all satisfied with the exciting drive and succumbed to the idea that we might just have to give up and head back. We opted first to cruise down State Line Road as a last-ditch effort, for which we were rewarded a few miles down the road when the BLM sign rose into view. At last!
We turned into Monument territory and wound around until we hit the place where the road continued up, and onto surface where nothing more than high clearance 4WD would do. Not another soul around. No cars. No people. I stopped the car at the place I felt no longer brave enough or skilled enough to drive. We got out and climbed up. There is supposed to be a trail, of sorts, heading to the top. It isn’t an official trail, and it is one that is necessary to bushwhack for each person who happens to locate it. We did not locate the trail, and just made our own way up through low lying sagebrush and other desert plants. We did not go into the trees, where the way gets harder and the path gets steeper. That would have to save for another day. Instead, we climbed to a rise about a third to half way up the side of the mountain.
Looking back from where we started, the beast had become an insect, the rock-strewn road simply a trail drawn out behind the insect’s path through the dirt. The quiet up there bound us to the mountain, to the earth beneath our feet, the air drifting across our faces and arms on its way up the slope, and the sky above, with dark clouds forming a moving edge leading from the distance up to just above our heads. Yes, there is peace up there. A peace you can feel resonate from the mountain itself. A peace that speaks of a place’s long history, of all she has witnessed over the millions of years of her existence, of all the heartbeats and breaths of the people and animals who have sidled up to her sides and across her surface, of the secrets she would whisper in your ear if only you’d listen close enough.
We peeled ourselves off of the surface, reluctantly, when the first drops of rain dropped languidly from the clouds beginning to drift overhead. We saw our second rainbow of the day when we reached the insect-turned-beast again, gave a moment’s pause to take it in, before climbing in and heading out again to State Line Road to begin making our way back. Except that we weren’t quite finished yet. From on the mountain, Gail had spotted what we made out to be the canyon that held the Rio Grande on this northern edge of the National Monument. We had turned right, to head back, but began pondering whether or not we could reach the rim if we turned around and followed the road west. We could not resist this temptation.
Much to our delight, the road ended at a path that led a short distance to the rim of the canyon. We stood on its edge, in a place that felt far from everywhere. The wind was less than gentle here, serving as a reminder that nature ruled, and if you did not heed the caution in her roar, you could be taking a quick trip to the bottom of the canyon. The power of nature is palpable here, and while you know that she can quickly dash you to the bottom to meet your end, she also makes you feel alive in her energy. And she continued to deliver as we made our way back down State Line Road. Rainbows began revealing themselves to us along our way. A full double rainbow spread itself from a distance on the north side of the road to a distance on the south side, linking New Mexico and Colorado in ribbons of color so vibrant touching them seemed possible. We saw so many rainbows, we lost track, each one reflecting back to us the joy felt at the turns of this day. The peace offered up by Ute Mountain and our gratitude for this offering, and the opportunity to experience it together, three friends bonded now by a mountain, with a canyon to remind us we are all alive, and ribbons of rainbows wrapped around the whole package.